WRESTLING AN OCTOPUS

by evseymour

Earlier last month, I tweeted that writing a first draft was akin to wrestling an octopus. Oh yes, I know the theory. You understand your characters because you’ve done proper profiles. Structurally, you know the beginning, the middle and the end. You recognise what’s at stake. You have a clear idea about your ‘bad guys’ and the dynamic between him/her and your main character. You have your outline, which you’ve worked up into a full-blown synopsis. You’ve thought about themes, locations, that hard to pin down quality: ‘tone’. In short, you’ve covered all the bases. So what can possibly go wrong? Answer: quite a bit.

Generally, with every novel I’ve written, I get off to a gallop. Like all mid sections, it’s important not to break into a slow canter. This time was fine, incidentally. Pace nice and tight. I even boasted to another writer (Paddy Magrane) that I was on the home straight. Talk about tempting fate.

I have no idea what went wrong other than I had a crisis of confidence. I got too picky with what I’d already written. (Fatal with first drafts). I wasn’t even sure about what to write next. The words simply wouldn’t come. Not one of them.  It was as if English was not my first language. I was certain I couldn’t move on, without going back. Aside from those clever dressage horses, have you ever seen a pony go into reverse?  Mine wasn’t even slow trotting. My nag had fallen, crushed under a weight of self-doubt. The plot twist that felt so sure-footed on paper didn’t quite come off. Characters had their own voices and I wasn’t sure I liked what I heard.  That kind of negativity is pretty destructive. And yet it happens more often than one might think, or possibly admit. Embarrassing to say but I work with writers all the time who encounter such a difficulty. And yet it had never happened to me. 

To get out of this awful self-defeating cycle, I gave myself a stern talking to, which didn’t work. I did not phone my agent. Nothing worse than a writer whining about losing her wits.  I did talk to my other half who, although kind, had no advice other than ‘keep going.’ (As it turned out, he was right). And then, mercifully, I had a breakthrough. 

Turning to St Google, I discovered reams of great advice. Essentially, a first draft is just that. It exists to muck around with. With a second draft, scenes can be switched, added to and deleted. Characters may change. You may warm them up or tone them down, or axe them completely. The second draft is actually where the fun starts but you need the original, as flawed as it is, first. Intellectually, I knew all this but, somehow, had failed to embrace it in my heart.  Anyway, after a short break, normal service has now been resumed and, as I speed towards the finish line, this will be my last post before Christmas and New Year Celebrations. Have a good one and, if there are writers out there who are currently struggling, remember what Ernest Hemingway said: ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’